The first weekend of the Dublin Theatre Festival has just finished and as usual there’s plenty of excitement and debate about the work that’s been staged. The most talked-about production so far is Wunderkammer by Circa, a show that (I’m told) combines aerial acrobatics with burlesque to amazing effect. I’ve also been hearing positive remarks about the Gare St Lazarre Godot, which previewed in Bray prior to its Gaiety opening later this week.
I saw two shows – both of which are very different from each other, even if both share an interest in exploring how theatre and performance operate as metaphors for life in general. The first was Desperate Optimists’ Tom and Vera, and the second was Germinal by Antoine Defoort and Halory Goerger.
Tom and Vera has been getting a mixed reaction – and, to be honest, I still don’t quite know what to make of it myself.
The production may have suffered from the weight of expectation around it: it represents a return to the theatre by an Irish company whose 1990s performances have become almost legendary. That sense of expectation is heightened upon arrival at the theatre, when we see a strikingly vivid and detailed set that depicts a forest clearing, including trees, grass, and even a (stuffed) fox. The scene feels both realistic and dreamlike – a feeling that is further evoked by music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, which builds in intensity and volume until the actors arrive on stage. It’s all beautiful, mysterious, and exciting. I’m pasting below some photos from the Beckett Theatre’s Facebook page, which give some idea of how impressive the design is.
But once the actors start talking, those feelings are quickly dispelled. Tom and Vera are a middle-aged couple who have lost their jobs, seen their pensions vanish, and been harassed by a bank manager who seems to enjoy humiliating them. They decide to disguise themselves as an elderly couple, using wigs and make-up to make themselves seem thirty years older; with that disguise, they will attempt to rob the bank that’s harassing them, using a gun that Tom has procured under circumstances that aren’t very clear. When he tells us he’s never used a gun before, we begin to worry that the couple’s plans may not succeed.
Some of what then transpires is original and compelling. In the two roles, Caitríona Ní Mhurchú and Alan Howley capture the gaunt, hassled expression of people who’ve spent too long worrying about money. It’s clear that financial troubles have stripped their lives of any hope or beauty – as shown most explicitly when Vera proposes that they settle their nerves before the robbery by (to use her word) fucking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so joyless a representation of marital sex before.
So as a response to the impact of debt and austerity on ordinary people, Tom and Vera feels both depressing and necessary.
But much of the play is also very awkward. The dialogue is often quite stilted and clichéd, and the exposition is handled in a manner that feels a bit facile. In order to focus their minds before the robbery, the couple tell each other the story of how they got into their predicament – and when one of them leaves the stage, the other will keep the action going by addressing their thoughts to the fox, or to a bird perched a twig. While it’s clear that the strangeness of these scenes is deliberate, there are times when this just feels like bad writing.
Nevertheless, the unmoving presence of the fox and bird on stage for the entire performance shows that we’re not supposed to see this as the ‘real world’, or to see the play as entirely realistic. Tom talks more than once about dreams that he’s had; he later eats a wild berry that makes him feel ill – and both of those actions might account for the dreamlike, hallucinatory logic of the play.
As for the over-familiar dialogue – while at times I wasn’t sure if the clichéd thinking was the authors’ or the characters’, the ultimate impact was to remind me occasionally of Pinter, who in so many of his plays creates an air of looming disaster by using clichéd language out of context. I’m thinking here of plays like One for the Road, for example.
And there was a definite attempt to contextualise the characters’ situation by using other artforms. Between the two acts, an opera singer (Janyce Condon) arrives on stage to sing (what I assume must be) another part of Tristan and Isolde. I later heard someone describe this (unfairly) as ‘interval entertainment’ and while it certainly was far more enjoyable than the chit-chat and passive smoking that an interval at the Beckett Theatre normally entails, the use of this performance to bridge the two acts was much more than a simple diversion. The intensity and beauty of the music acted as an ironic counterpoint to the characters’ situation. And of course opera – not to mention the music of Wagner generally – can be bombastic and melodramatic too, so I found myself thinking that the performances in Tom and Vera might have been perfectly acceptable if shifted into a different medium. Overall, then, the combined impact of Dominique Brennan’s production design and Wagner’s music was to heighten the ugliness and indignity of the characters’ desperate predicament.
Also quite interesting was the way in which the characters planned for the bank robbery. Their use of make-up and costume to disguise themselves was certainly theatrical (albeit unconvincingly so), and as they prepared for the crime they spoke in terms of being characters, learning lines, and the time they had spent rehearsing. So their bank robbery is a dreadful failure because they are bad actors, because they have based their plans not on experience but on clichéd thinking. This reminded me slightly of Reservoir Dogs, which also shows would-be bank robbers rehearsing, dressing-up, and role-playing in advance – and doing so in a way that allows the audience to understand why the robbery doesn’t work. The difference, however, is that in Tarantino the quotation marks are always clearly visible, and the irony always thoroughly signposted.
So this is a curious play about theatrical failure, about generic convention, about audience expectation – and about the things we expect out of life, such as financial security and the continued love of our spouse. All of that is very interesting. But as I left the theatre, trying to piece together these different ideas, my companion put to me a thought that had been troubling me anyway. “Maybe you’re being too generous,” she said. “Maybe it was just bad”.
I couldn’t really answer that.
It begins with four performers onstage in total darkness. The lights fade in and out, and we gradually realise that the lights are being controlled by the performers themselves, each of whom holds a small control table. The performers then realise that they can use the machines to transmit their thoughts to panels on the backstage wall – and that realisation is soon followed by their discovery and then their development of speech.
We quickly understand that what we’re watching is a recreation of the development of human life and, more specifically, human thought. The performers soon move from concrete thought to abstraction, and they attempt to categorise the world (hilariously) into things that go ‘poc poc’ and things that do not go ‘poc poc’ when banged with a microphone. All of this is delivered in a contemporary idiom, and it draws on images and ideas from our own time. For example, the ubiquitous MS Windows desktop design becomes a hill projected on the back wall – and when the performers find an intercom they interact with a woman who is part metaphysician cum quantum physicist, and part customer service operative.
The performance is very funny, but it’s also a very stimulating investigation of how we use story and language to organise the world – and how the deep structures of language can make us confuse what is conventional with what is real. The production shifts from straightforward humour into satire from time to time too, as happens when belief in God is compared with those sales scams that customer service people sometimes try to sneak into phone calls (if you’ve ever had someone try to sell you mobile phone insurance, this scene will resonate).
The clarity of thought in evidence here quickly reminds us of how it was that France gave the world René Descartes – just as the deliberately playful wrong-headedness of the characters’ conclusions reminds us that France also gave the world Derrida and Lacan.
Visually it reminded me a lot of Miet Warlop’s Mystery Magnet from last year’s DTF – but whereas that show was very slight, Germinal is witty and stimulating. It would be inaccurate to call it thought-provoking, but I’d suggest that this company is doing intellectually what Circa do physically: showing us something that is impressive because it is so virtuosic – because the effort involved in staging something like this requires extraordinary levels of skill and practice.
Germinal also shows that theatre can act as a metaphor not only for thought but for life itself – and while that idea will undoubtedly serve to boost its popularity on the international touring network, it’s a message that is worth hearing in any setting.
One of the criticisms I hear about a lot of contemporary theatre is that too often we are watching theatre that is about theatre and nothing else. Tom and Vera and Germinal are very different from each other, but both can be used to challenge that accusation. Both certainly share an interest in how theatre is embedded in everyday life – that is, they share an awareness of how performance can shape how we see the world, how we think about our place in the world, and how we interact with each other. Far from seeming frivolous or self-absorbed, both productions left me with a reinforced sense of the importance of theatre and role-playing.
Overall then it’s been a good start to this year’s DTF. And there’s a lot to look forward to during the week ahead – notably that GSL Godot and the one I’ve most been looking forward to: David Greig’s The Events.